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Kiwi expert warns against bat mull in Ebola battle

Xinhua, August 13, 2014 Adjust font size:

Wiping out bats that are suspected of spreading the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa could have dire ecological and economic consequences, a New Zealand expert in veterinary public health warned Wednesday.

David Hayman, of Massey University, found evidence of the Ebola virus in bats in West Africa during seven years of studying disease transmission among bats, but he was concerned about proposals for the mass extermination of fruit bats suspected of spreading the virus that has killed more than 1,000 people.

Past attempts to stem the spread of rabies by exterminating vampire bat populations did little to stop that virus, Hayman said in a statement.

"In the past we've just killed off bat populations, but it's important we don't take the ill-informed and blunt route of persecuting bats, because they are really important ecologically," said Hayman.

"They do so many unseen things; for example fruit bats eat fruit and then defecate the seeds elsewhere to help reforestation and bats perform a vital role protecting crops by killing pests."

The economic value of bats was brought to light by the fungal infection that had wiped out more than six million bats in North America since its discovery in 2007, said Hayman, who is involved in research into the epidemic that could cost the agricultural industry 3.7 billion U.S. dollars a year in pest control alone.

The ban on bush-meat hunting and eating bats in Guinea was a positive step in preventing the spread of Ebola, but the most urgent priority was stemming its spread from human to human and researching how humans were being infected.

"Unlike viruses like rabies, Ebola can be spread from human to human through close contact and the virus could become more infectious between people by evolving inside an individual. That's a fearful part of Ebola."

Hayman said his research showed the Ebola virus was found in forest dwelling bats and not the massive populations of urban dwelling bats.

He believed deforestation, encroachment and bush-meat hunting of bats and possibly primates, were the main contributors to the current Ebola virus outbreaks across Africa.

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